Since our founding twenty years ago, ACT has aspired to be at the forefront of introducing new technologies that facilitate or expedite conservation. We have long utilized GPS to map the traditional lands of local communities residing in the Amazon, focusing on land use, cultural cartography, and monitoring. Among other constructive results, this initiative has yielded comprehensive land use maps for the Trio and Wayana indigenous communities and the six Maroon communities of Suriname, along with land management plans focusing on monitoring environmental pressures such as proximate small-scale gold mining and pests threatening agricultural cultivation. In Brazil, ACT worked with more than 20 indigenous groups to create land use maps covering more than 44 million acres for tribal use in developing reserve management plans.
Now, ACT is undertaking a significant upgrade to our field data collection efforts—and that of our community partners—by introducing Open Data Kit (ODK) smartphone and tablet data collection forms.
A New Day with ODK
Using Western technologies not designed for indigenous and other rainforest people has come with its challenges. The expensive GPS handhelds are operable only in Western languages, and feature complex menu options. This requires ACT staff to spend long hours in the field explaining and translating the GPS menu, and then only to train people in marking basic waypoints. Receipt of field data is also problematic: data transfer frequently takes months, sometimes incompletely.
All of this can change with Open Data Kit. The ODK app is made to be translated into local languages, and complex forms can be designed targeting specific kinds of data collection. The form can be filled out in an offline context, and when the device comes back in range of a Wi-Fi or data transmission network, the form will automatically be submitted to a server hosted by ACT. The app is operable on any Android smartphone or tablet device equipped with a GPS unit, meaning that we no longer must purchase dedicated devices for data collection; community members with an Android phone can start collecting data right away.
Facilitating Sacred Site Recovery with the Kogi People of Colombia
The Kogi people and their related tribes live on roughly 14.5 million acres in Colombia’s northern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region** on legally recognized reserves. Around the margins of the Sierra Nevada is the Línea Negra, the “Black Line,” a chain of 54 pilgrimage sites sacred to the Kogi and once part of their ancestral territories. Most of the associated sites are not currently under Kogi ownership or control—the Kogi were forced to abandon them due to decades of colonization and violent civil conflict—and many are endangered by poorly planned development schemes, megaprojects, mining activity, and/or illicit crop cultivation.
In 2012, ACT and the Kogi began a partnership to acquire and manage their most endangered coastal sacred sites. An essential section of the first of these, Jaba Tañiwashkaka, was purchased in 2013, with subsequent adjacent purchases bringing more than 400 acres of the expanded ancestral site under ancestral management and ecological restoration. With assistance from the national government, this land was returned to the ownership and stewardship of the Kogi, establishing a precedent for future restoration of their sacred territories.
ACT is teaching the Kogi to use a tailored ODK application to map and inventory their complex network of sacred sites, all of which carry high ecological value. By providing a unified source of cultural and environmental site information, the app helps the Kogi prioritize sacred site recovery within their long-term territorial reclamation process. Cultural data can be collected in multiple dimensions, enabling the generation of records on ancestral roads, archaeological sites, and petroglyphs and permitting younger members of the Kogi survey team to record oral histories regarding the importance of the sites for transmission to future generations. From an ecological standpoint, the app can capture biodiversity data and allows the Kogi to record the external pressures that threaten these sites.
ACT is grateful to the representative association of the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa people, the Organización Gonawindua Tayrona, for its consultation and its facilitation of this work.
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Rainforest Monitoring with Indigenous Park Guards in Suriname
In February 2016, ACT introduced an ODK form to the ACT-trained Indigenous Park Guards (IPGs) in the Wayana village of Apetina in southern Suriname. IPGs are currently active in four Wayana and Trio villages in Suriname, and routinely conduct wildlife, natural resource, and environmental threat monitoring expeditions around the village and along the rivers and creeks of the Surinamese Rainforest. This ODK form was designed with the specific data collection needs of the IPGs in mind. The available data categories are features which the IPGs regularly record using GPS handhelds and paper forms, such as important natural resources like the Tasi palm used to fletch traditional roofs, environmental threats like leafcutter ants and signs of gold mining activity, and village infrastructure like water taps and buildings. To further facilitate the data collection process, we’ve added functionality to allow the IPGs to take photos and record audio directly into the ODK form.
ACT field staff trained the Wayana IPGs in ODK and utilized the technology to conduct village mapping and camera trap placement exercises. The younger IPGs were able to download the application and form directly onto their personal smartphones, eliminating the need to carry specialized equipment.
The IPGs in Apetina in Suriname and elsewhere will be now able to conduct their regular monitoring expeditions with the assistance of a form translated into their native language. To facilitate training and understanding we translated the form into five tongues: Dutch, English, the Surinamese lingua franca Sranan Tongo, and the Trio and Wayana languages (translation courtesy of ACT-Suriname’s Maaikē Jaachpi and Michel Nailoepun, respectively). The technology will eliminate errors in recording, meaning that we will seamlessly and immediately receive data from the field. In March 2016, ACT plans to translate the app into Suriname’s Matawai Maroon language as well.
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Into the Future
For all participants, this is a technology with a special capacity to inspire and engage because it produces both immediate and long-term returns; it captures both data and the imagination. In both pilots, through the ODK innovation, ACT has been able to help native communities gather information they have long sought to demonstrate to the world their special understanding of their local environments and their special competence in managing these lands. And much more potential remains: going forward, with our local partners, ACT plans to apply ODK to community measurement, reporting, and verification (CMRV) in conjunction with national REDD+ initiatives, more sophisticated land use and cultural mapping, and tracking of project indicators.
ACT wishes to extend deep thanks to Google Earth Outreach for providing training in coding and structuring ODK forms, and to Benetech for donating indispensable hardware.
**At a height of 5,700 meters, or close to 19,000 feet, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world’s highest coastal mountain range and contains the only glaciers in the Caribbean. The unique geography and the presence of a rich mosaic of ecosystems and endemic species makes this one of the world’s most irreplaceable montane ecosystems. The Sierra is home to four indigenous groups: the Kogi, Arhuaco, Kankuamo and Wiwa, who together have a population of over 30,000 people.
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